Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
Psalm 23 is undoubtedly the most well-know and most beloved psalm in the Bible. It is written by an unknown ancient poet to remind us that in our hardest times we are not alone.
It has been a particularly difficult week in this community. After months and years of observing the epidemic of gun violence that has reached into schools, public gatherings and places of worship, as well as in the privacy of homes, where anger bubbles up and overflows, this week the violence has come close, with the shooting death of Meaghan Burns, a member of this parish.
Some of you knew Meaghan. Many of you know Carolyn. Regardless, the news of this senseless act of violence has impacted all of us. It is for times like these that Psalm 23 was written. Its text speaks to the deepest places in us.
I’ve seen the depth to which this psalm speaks to us in an experience I’ve had more than once, and I know Heather, Ann, and Jane have, as well. Sometimes when visiting a person who is gravely ill - even near death - who has been unresponsive, when I have begun praying Psalm 23, their lips move in silent accompaniment. They know those words, and the words matter, and they join me from somewhere far away, praying those words.
Psalm 23’s words and images are deeply reassuring in their promise of G’s presence & guidance in our time of need.
4th Sunday of Easter known as “Good Shepherd Sunday – a tradition that originally came from Roman Catholic tradition, that has been adopted by the Episcopal Church with our adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary.
It always includes Jesus’ discourse from the 10th chapter of John’s gospel, in which he asserts that he is the good shepherd:
-whose sheep know his name and follow him
-who are given eternal life
On 4th Easter, the “Good Shepherd Gospel” always accompanied by Ps 23. We are accustomed to reading Ps 23 on its own, but in its placement in Book of Psalms, it is a partner and companion-piece to the preceding - Ps 22. Ps 22 is Psalm of lament, even of anguish – we read it in 2 Lent, after the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday, and again on Good Friday.
Its themes are of great suffering and hopelessness.
Ps 22 opens with words that are particularly familiar to us because Jesus spoke them on the cross. He was reciting a psalm that was very real to him.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
Ps 22 comes from times of deep despair in history of Hebrew people, when hope did seem to be gone but they cried out to God for relief and redemption.
Ps 23, then, is not just a random expression of appreciation of God’s guiding presence, but it is the answer to Ps 22 – an acknowledgement of having been saved from deepest pain and despair by the Lord who is my Shepherd.
The image of God as Shepherd runs throughout the Hebrew scriptures; when J spoke of himself as shepherd, he was building on an established metaphor in the tradition of his faith. Here are some examples:
Ps 95 : We are the people of G’s pasture and the sheep of his hand
Prophet Ezekiel writes: thus says the Lord God: As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.
And from the Prophet Isaiah: He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
These passages must have resonated with the people of Israel, including Jesus’ contemporaries because they knew about the work of herding of sheep and goats as a major form of livelihood: sheep were source of food, a necessity for Temple sacrifice, and their wool was a staple for clothing and blankets
Because sheep were important in their world, both contemporaries of Psalmist and hearers of Jesus and John knew the importance of Shepherds.
It may not be flattering to our sensibilities to be likened to sheep, but whether we like it or not, there is truth in the analogy.
Sheep are vulnerable – vulnerable because they are not very bright. They need a leader: without one, will wander, including walking into danger.
Sheep are prone to get lost, to get caught in brambles. They need to be led to water; they can’t find it on their own. Further, sheep will only drink from still water, not from briskly running stream.
The rod and staff referred to in the psalm are essential tools: the staff (or shepherd’s crook, a replica of which carried by our Bishops,) has hook for grabbing the neck or leg to rescue a sheep caught in thicket or to capture fleeing sheep.
The rod is heavy straight pole to used to prod sheep when driving them from behind OR to ward off predators.
God our Shepherd cares for us, as Jesus says at end of today’s Gospel, that we may have eternal life.
God provides those green pastures and still waters that we need, and allows us rest in the midst of violence and discord that fill our world:
-God allows our souls to be restored when we are exhausted and worn out by the cares, the sorrows and difficulties of life.
-The Lord our Shepherd does not remove from our lives the things that terrify and trouble us: we still walk through the Valley of the shadow of death.
-We still live in the presence of those who would harm us
But God the Shepherd is by our side, allowing us to live and thrive DESPITE the presence of those things that threaten and sometimes destroy our peace.
God’s care for us is such that God’s goodness and mercy follow us –
In Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, he says it this way: God’s beauty and love chase after us
All the days of our lives.
Today you may hear Psalm 23 in a place of knowing God’s loving presence. I encourage you to pray your gratitude.
You may encounter the psalm today while walking in the shadow of death – from a burden you carry or sorrow you bear. Pray that sorrow – offering it to God, that God will help you in bearing it.
You may hear the Psalm, today, from a place of uncertainty or confusion. That uncertainty can be offered in prayer, as well, that the strong hand and guiding staff of the Shepherd will bring you rest.
For the love, the guidance and comfort of the Holy One, the Shepherd, thanks be to God, today and always.Amen.
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